On the 24th of October, Just Stop Oil held a talk at St Aldates Tavern for the Oxford student community. Not only is it the third talk in three weeks here in Oxford, but one of many taking place in university towns across the UK this month. A coordinator stood outside wearing a bright orange high-vis jacket and directed attendees upstairs. A few people, clearly part of the organisation, chatted about the event, but also about their long days full of tutes and looming deadlines.
The atmosphere was relaxed and informal, far from what one may expect at a so-called ‘radical’ meeting, intending to encourage students and Oxford community members alike to get involved and perhaps get arrested in the name of Just Stop Oil and its demands. Only a few posters marked the space as one of anger and empowerment, one reading ‘it’s life or death, fuck big oil” and another “it’s life or death, pick a side”.
The talk opened with a heartfelt speech from an Oxford PhD student on his motivations for joining Just Stop Oil. Whilst he was at first cynical about the possibility of reversing climate change, the COVID-19 lockdown of March 2020 was a proper wake-up call for him. The fast actions of the government proved that “when we actually know about something bad…we can take drastic action”. Why couldn’t the same happen in the name of the climate crisis?
It was the mix of statistics on future unrest caused by food shortages, refugee crises, and supply chain breakdowns with more personal anecdotal information that seemed to resonate with the room. As another student speaker would later say it is the “emotional connection” with this global emergency which really fuels people’s involvement in Just Stop Oil and pushes them past fears of public arrest. The talk itself seemed to foster this emotional connection with break-out groups at the end, giving people the opportunity to express their anger, but also “channel” this into “meaningful action”.
A younger student, who only recently joined Just Stop Oil, discussed the nature of and intentions behind the tactics of Just Stop Oil, which he himself recognised as “controversial”. He stressed that far from “people sitting nicely”, it is the headline-making, attention-grabbing public disruptions, like that at the Radcliffe Camera, that truly make a difference. He even went so far as to draw comparisons between the tactics of Just Stop Oil and those of the Suffragette and Civil Rights movements.
Although these comparisons may seem rather extreme, it is clear that Just Stop Oil views their style of protests as the only way forward. Unlike the blurred line between non-violence and violence that defined these historic movements, Just Stop Oil emphasises, with the help of non-violence training, their tactics are disruptive but never violent.
One of the coordinators attempted to demystify the arrest process and legal ramifications, (or lack thereof), acknowledging that “it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be”, using words such as “manageable” and far from anything “life-changing”. Whilst this might be the case for some, it undoubtedly raises questions about how arrest processes may vary depending on a person’s background.
We asked the coordinator about her opinions on how this intersects with Just Stop Oil’s lack of diversity and she said “we have to be aware that the police treat different people differently”. Despite this, with the help of non-violence training and police station support schemes, she claimed that Just Stop Oil has “a pretty good security network” to support everyone and anyone that might need it.
Today’s talk was part of their call to join their “community of resistance” because it is only in numbers that they will be able to “turn the tide on the government and finally start winning”. As multiple speakers noted, it was welcome talks like this very one that encouraged them to commit, both to the movement and to their likely first arrest in November at the London march. They highlighted that for students this arrest will only stay on their record for up to 12 months and not even have a chance to impact their employability. This seems to be yet another reason for their focus on the student community.
In November, Just Stop Oil plans to overwhelm London prisons with student protesters until the government is forced to negotiate with them. According to the coordinators, protests, like that at the Radcliffe Camera, have been successful in increasing student participation in the welcome talks. The next one is on the 30th of October back at St Aldates Tavern.
But that still leaves one important question: is this campaign going to work? Are these meetings building the necessary momentum, anger, and interest for the London march? The members of Just Stop Oil at yesterday’s meeting certainly seemed optimistic but it will remain to be seen whether the Oxford student community is going to show up in November and whether they are willing to be arrested for this cause.